How to Stop Being a Digital Packrat

Digital packrats have all kinds of files on the hard drive, just because they think they might need them. Free online storage encourages keeping even more hoarding and discourages you from deleting all those photos, audio and video files, PDFs, word processing documents, spreadsheets, and other digital tidbits.

Trouble is, there are costs to digital pack rattery. It can slow down your computer and worse, it can complicate your life, cost you time in terms of productivity, and can stress you out more than you know. And the most irritating thing? You still can't find the item when you need it because you named it r_y33_gr and can't even remember it! Decluttering your digital life will restore relief and speed to your computing life. If you feel: that you should keep a lot of files “just in case”; it takes you too long to find stuff; and your digital life is becoming complicated, with multiple email accounts, drives, storage mediums and a mess of files or folders, then this article is for you.


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    Diagnose thyself digital packrat. One or more of these symptoms will likely mean you're a digital packrat:
    • Do you have 20 or more folders and sub-folders in your documents folder on your hard drive?
    • Is your list of Internet bookmarks long and overwhelming? Do you use them much or scroll through lots of unused ones to get to the few you do use?
    • Is your email program nearly full, or do you use more than one email account because of all the storage you need?
    • Do you have multiple duplicates of photos, and is it hard to find a photo you need?
    • Is your hard drive 75 percent full or more?
    • Do you have multiple accounts for similar things, making it hard to find stuff?
    • Are any of your digital file systems overwhelming?
    • Do you have email from 5 years ago?
    • Do you have project files from 2 years ago?
    • Do you have folders of stuff waiting to be read that would take a year to actually read if you ever did get around to reading them?
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    Go through a massive purge. In the beginning, you’ll need to devote some time to purging files. Thirty minutes a day is a good time — put it in your calendar, and just spend 30 minutes purging everything you can. See the "Tips" below for more details. When you’re done with your massive purge, it feels amazing! It’s worth the time you spend doing it.
    • Target one folder at a time. If you can set aside some time each day for purging, then each day you should target a large folder. Start with the biggest ones and then work your way down. "Folders" mean anything that contains digital files or information, email accounts, Flickr accounts, hard drives, USB flash drives, Internet bookmarks, My Documents sub-folders, etc.
    • Choose only the important stuff, and trash the rest. Go through all the stuff in the folder you’re targeting (see above) and pick out only the most important stuff, only the super essential files. Put them in a separate, temporary folder. Once you’ve picked out the essential stuff, delete the rest. Put the essential stuff back where it belongs and delete the temporary folder. What this leaves you with is a lot less stuff in each folder — just the stuff you need. Sometimes, you can delete an entire folder — if you can, then do so.
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    Simplify before organizing. Many people try to create complicated organizing systems for all of their stuff, in an attempt to get organized. But it’s much better to reduce your stuff, and to get it as simple as possible, before organizing it all. If you simplify enough, you might not even need to organize at all! Consider compressing files you do intend to keep, so they take up much less space.
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    Get organized and have one place for everything. Once you’ve simplified, organize so that everything you need is kept together, either in one place or as few places as possible. For example, you could organize all the information in your life in a personal wiki, creating different pages in the wiki for different types of info. Having one place for everything reduces the need to look for stuff.
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    Reduce accounts. Same concept, but in this step you should list out your different accounts for holding files and digital information, and try to analyze which ones are necessary and which ones can be eliminated. The fewer, the better. And if you find an account that holds all your things in one place, prefer it over a dispersed range of accounts.
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    Simplify your feeds. If you’ve got 100 RSS feeds or more, chances are you’re being a packrat with them. Drop as many as possible, so the incoming information is reduced to a manageable amount. Set yourself a challenge to reduce your feeds down to 10.
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    Clear out your in-box. Having an overloaded in-box is overwhelming. Reduce your in-boxes and clear them out. This includes all those unsent drafts you've "slept on"; you're never going to say it now.
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    Clear out old emails. After you clear out your in-box, it's useful to clear out old messages. In Gmail, for example, you could create a filter that searched for all your email messages older than 6 months. Scan through this new folder, and delete all of the messages if possible. You could then do a second filter to find all types of media files (.jpg, .gif, .pdf, .mov, .mp3, .mpg, etc.) and then delete as many of these as possible.
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    Clear your desktop. Don't have any icons on your computer's desktop. Delete or sort through all of those, and have a clear desktop. Simple and calming. Instead, use a simple filing system where you have a folder for downloads, another for things you're currently working on, another for read/review, and another for archives. For shortcuts to applications, use a program like AutoHotKey to make keyboard shortcuts to all the applications you use — much faster than shortcuts on the desktop.
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    Delete multiple or poor photos. It's useful for both amateur photographers and pros to cull through their photos, not only to simplify but to force you to analyze your photos and just choose the best. Get rid of all the mistakes, blurred images, and ones that you don't think much of now and never will. Otherwise, you're not looking at any of them!
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    Stop saving junk. Once you’ve cleared out your old files and emails and accounts and your desktop, the key is to keep them clear. Every time you’re about to save something, ask yourself if it is really valuable information, or if it's basically junk. Toss the junk.
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    Defrag your hard drive. Once you’ve gone through all your old files on your hard drive, it's good to run a defrag utility so that your drive is organized efficiently and runs faster.
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    Aim for a simple digital life. Once you're purged of all the clutter and junk, see if you can keep things simple. When you're tempted to file something, see if you can deal with it and delete it immediately instead. When it comes time to create another account for more storage, see if you can reduce your storage needs instead. At all turns, aim to simplify instead of complicate. This is more of a change in mindset than anything else.
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    Develop purging routines. It's important to do some regular house cleaning of your digital files. Just as you have to clean your house regularly, or it will become junk-ridden and cobweb-filled, you have to clean your digital house as well. Once a week or once a month, depending on the amount of stuff you amass, should be a good interval for purging. If you want to be really organized, develop a checklist of things to purge during these regular intervals.
    • Put purging reminders in your calendar. To make purging a routine, set reminders in your calendar program. Every week or two, or every month, are good intervals, depending on your needs. But make it a regular thing, and you’ll be living the simple digital life from now on.


  • If you feel you really must keep some of that information, burn it to CD's, label clearly and store in a CD holder (the modern soft, fabric ones are less brutal-looking and take up less space). But remember this, CD information tends to corrupt over time, so don't leave anything you truly value on them without a decent backup somewhere, such as USB sticks, external hard drives, etc. but don't overdo the additional storage as it's no better than storing your furniture elsewhere because you can't fit it into your home! You do need to ask yourself if the information is worth keeping - so much of it is available online these days (PDFs etc.) that keeping extra copies of your own is duplicating - and pack ratting. And likely you'll forget what's on them anyway.

Things You'll Need

  • Computer

Sources and Citations

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